Todo es posible

It was dumb luck that I ended up going to the jungle.  One morning when I was eating breakfast at the Magic Bean, an American-owned restaurant in the touristy La Mariscal area of Quito, I met a Canadian missionary named Colin.  I told him about my aunt and her desire to see a shaman.  It turns out he had been making frequent trips to the jungle to teach isolated communities how to collect and extract clean drinking water.  He knew of a shaman named Don Alfonso who had gained a reputation for curing people with cancer, and he volunteered to take my aunt and me to see him.

By the weekend Colin had arranged the trip and we loaded up in his 4-wheel-drive jeep to begin our descent into the jungle where Don Alfonso awaited my aunt’s arrival.  My uncle Fernando was supposed to join us, but on the morning of our departure, he complained of severe stomach pain and backed out on us.  At least he pitched in by stocking up my backpack with zip-lock bags, which would prove to be vitally important, vitamin-B pills to deter mosquitoes, and mefloquine tablets to prevent malaria in case the mosquitoes bit anyway (and to possibly induce some pretty wicked hallucinations).   According to Colin our trip would take 8-14 hours depending on the road conditions and the weather.

Arrival times in Ecuador are always tough to estimate, hence the phrase directed at travelers: todo es posible, nada es seguro.  Anything is possible, nothing is certain.  Two hours into our trip I realized why.

A tree had fallen over the mountain road preventing us—and the bus in front of us—from continuing.  The bus driver and his attendant were outside inspecting the tree.  Out of boredom, several of the passengers were kicking mud off the road’s edge over the cliff.  We approached the driver, carelessly leaving behind my aunt who was asleep in the back seat of the jeep.  “What are we going to do about this?” Colin asked the mustached man with a cigarette tucked behind each ear.

“We wait,” said the driver giving the tree a gentle kick, “until the tree moves.”

“The tree won’t move on its own,” I said.

The driver lit a cigarette and slumped onto the bumper of the bus.  “No.  It won’t.”

“Can we try to move it?” I asked.

“The men have already tried.  It is impossible.”

“Do you have a rope?” Colin asked.  Since his Spanish was inadequate to describe what he intended, he demonstrated through gestures how we could tie one end of the rope to the tree and the other to the bus and pull the tree out of the way.

The driver shrugged his shoulders in disinterest.  He liked his plan better: if we wait long enough, eventually the tree will not be there.  He and his attendant seemed to have the patience to see the plan to its end.

Now, whether it was part of their “master plan” or more likely a stroke of luck, a logging truck approached from the opposite direction and stopped on the other side of the tree.  The young loggers sitting in the back jumped down and assessed the situation.  They rolled up their sleeves and slipped on their work gloves.  I looked on incredulously as the stocky men took their positions behind the tree and gave it a brave and spirited push.  It didn’t move.  They stepped back and the leader of the group shouted out orders and redirected some of the men.  They gave it another push with no success.  The leader called out angrily to the lazy passengers of the bus to help them out.  With forty sets of hands we were unable to even roll the tree, and the leader kicked a juicy pile of mud into the air.

“Do you have a rope?” Colin asked.

One of the men enthusiastically ran back to the logging truck, and we were relieved when he emerged with a long rope.  He and his boss tied it securely around the highest point of the tree.  But they did not tie the other end to the truck.  They did not tie the other end to the bus.  Each of the men grabbed a section of the rope and with the rope resting over their shoulders, they gave it a determined tug.  When that didn’t work, without a word being spoken, they faced the tree, squatted, and tried to plod their way backwards until their strength gave out they fell on their butts.  This was way too fucking hilarious for me to be angry or frustrated, but I had to remind myself I had a sick aunt in the back seat of our jeep.  I returned to find her in a deep sleep.  I dozed off myself.

About an hour later I heard a rumble and looked out to the road.  I ran toward the tree.  It began to roll.  It was attached to the truck by the rope.  Todo es posible—given enough time.

The Cayramashi Part 2

Ironically, it was my uncle’s death from cancer last year that brought the Cayramashi flying back into my life.  Unrique Enrique had always surged ahead of life’s battles, and it was he who had been caring for his wife Belén during her own battle with cancer. Initially, he attributed his fatigue and headaches to his heavy work schedule at the embassy, but soon he was being rolled down the same hospital corridors as his wife.  A month later he died.  Leukemia they said.  With hardly a moment to grieve, Belén raced towards death’s door so rapidly that when we boarded our flight to Ecuador, my mother and I assumed we would be attending two funerals.

Our first night in Quito, we visited my aunt’s apartment, mounted like a beehive on the eucalyptus-covered slopes overlooking the city.  From inside we had a panoramic view of the city.

Belén was resting alone in her bedroom when we arrived, while the rest of the family gathered in the living room where the impassioned conversations often began in whispers before the crescendo into raspy shouts.   I knew they were debating arrangements for Belén, but my Spanish was slow and labored, and I felt too distant to the matters at hand to provide any contributions to the discussion.  The other men in the room, mostly my other uncles, were the most impassioned speakers while my cousins Esteban and Ana were silent like me.  Suppressing a yawn, I excused myself from the apartment and descended the three flights of stairs to the street.  I headed to a noisy corner at a busy intersection, where the young, the homeless, the destitute, and the pious shared in a chorus of litanies.  In a tiny stall amidst a cloud of smoke from a rotisserie chicken, I found an old vendor wailing his tired sales pitch, and I bought a Coke from him—a real Coke, made with sugar instead of the high fructose corn syrup I was used to back home.  A hand pressed against the small of my back causing me to snort a gulp of the soda through my nostrils.  I spun around to find my cousin Ana.  A cigarette dangled from her lips.

“I had to get some fresh air,” I explained as her rolling cloud of sweet smoke escaped from the corner of her mouth and collided with the dry, bitter plume billowing from the rotisserie and the thick, diesel exhaust pouring out of the passing buses.  She didn’t appreciate my facetious explanation, so I admitted the truth.  “They talk so fast when they argue.  My mind can’t keep up with what they’re saying.”

“It is good practice for your Spanish,” she said.  “They were discussing where to take our aunt.”

“Are things… imminent?”

She flicked her cigarette to the ground and stamped it out.  “She won’t accept her chemotherapy.  She has lost hope that it might work.”

I returned the glass bottle to the vendor who had been watching me carefully to make sure I didn’t walk away with his five-cent bottle deposit.  “How long do they say she has?”

“A month.  Probably less.”

“I suppose she wants to spend these last few days with family,” I said.

“Her family is in Guayaquil.  But that is not where she wants to go.”  I never knew where her side of the family came from.  With all of Enrique’s exotic assignments, I had never realized Belén was as unfamiliar to my mother’s side of the family as she was to me.  Ana rolled her eyes.  “She wants to go to the jungle.  She wants to see a shaman.”

“That seems fair, Ana.  It’s her life.”

She glared at me.  “When you are dying, your life does not belong to you anymore.  It belongs to the people who love you, who have cared for you, who will grieve for you.  Our entire lives revolve around relationships with others, no?  Dying is no different.”  She clamped her fingers around my elbow.  “You should go talk to her.”

“Me?”

“You’re running out of time.”

“I hardly know her.”

“Exactly.”

“What do I say?”

“Convince her to stay,” she said calmly.  “You have a neutral opinion.”

When I re-entered the apartment, the arguments raged on in a cacophony of one-on-one skirmishes.  As I listened closely, I realized they were arguing in agreement against my aunt, who lay defenseless in her bed. My mother remained defiantly neutral with a placid smile affixed to her face.  I knew she had an opinion but was unwilling to immerse herself in family politics.  The lone defender of her jungle plan was my Uncle Fernando, who always had a distaste for the city and a distrust of modern medicine.  He was the genius in the family.  After achieving a brilliant academic record and receiving various graduate degrees from top universities all over Europe, he had spurned generous job offers abroad and settled into a modest lifestyle in the small town of San Antonio de Ibarra.  He was my idol and whenever he spoke, I listened.

“You and I could go with her to the jungle,” Fernando said to me though addressing the others.  “You have always wanted to go to the jungle.”

Initially, the idea excited me, but I responded, “Me?  Why?”

“Because you are neutral.  And of course you want to get away from these gatherings, which I know are boring for you.”  He nibbled at his lip, then quipped, “And the jungle is full of gringos.”

My family, including my mother, erupted in laughter.  It was always a sure-fire way to ease tension: make fun of gringos.  But what he said had a bit of truth. Most Ecuadorians rarely go deep into the jungle, a place inhabited by the few remaining indigenous tribes and American oilmen, missionaries, and tourists.  We left the apartment that night with nothing resolved.

The Cayramashi

(A variation on a previous post)

I remember the glamorous tales of adventure in the Amazon my uncle Enrique used to tell me when I was younger and my mother, a native Ecuadorian, would bring me to Quito to visit her family.  During one of those early visits over twenty years ago, I remember sitting on my uncle Enrique’s lap as he pulled out a leather-covered scrapbook and told me of a life completely foreign from my own.  I was eight years old; he was a wise forty-five.  Other memories have been devoured by time, but I remember that moment so vividly, staring up at his whiskered face, into his wide eyes hidden behind the thick lenses of his crooked, black-rimmed glasses.  The scent of Aunt Belén’s potato soup wafted into the room on a wave of steam as Uncle Enrique turned the first page, unveiling an assortment of pictures from the jungles of the Amazon basin.  Some were clipped from magazines while others were sepia originals.  He said, “Did you know there are people in the jungle who have lived a life undisturbed for thousands of years?  In the cities we no longer know how to live from the land or how to live with the land.  In el oriente, there are people who still understand.”

One picture showed a group of trees standing out above the rest in an attempt to grab more sun.  My uncle lifted his eyebrows as if preparing to tell a story bigger than life and said, “The jungle is like a high-rise apartment building.  In the basement, the river, live the caimans, piranhas, and anacondas.  On the ground are millions of insects in lines of traffic marching and burrowing their way through life.  Midway up the trees are the tarantulas, boas, termites, and monkeys, and at the top are the birds with their enormous nests and panoramic views.  The world of the birds is a mystery.  Did you know we have studied the ocean floors more than we’ve studied the jungle canopy?”  Staring out the tall, narrow window of the living room, he added, “There is more life in twenty meters of jungle than in all of Quito.  And somewhere in that small patch is a cure for an illness inflicting someone we know.

He showed me a photograph of one of these mysterious medicine men.  The man with umber skin in the photo wore a crown of colorful feathers on his head and a necklace of jaguar teeth around his neck.  A single macaw feather pierced his wide nose.  As I stared, mesmerized at the photo, my uncle continued.  “The shamans have studied the healing properties of thousands of plants, and they use the powerful potion, ayahuasca, to take them places no man can ordinarily go.  They visit lost loved ones, confer with plants and animals, soar over forests, travel through time, and comprehend life in its entirety.”  He clasped his hands.  “The drink binds the supernatural and the natural into one.”

I asked him if he’d ever tried ayahuasca, and a slow smile stretched across his tarnished face exposing the faint crows feet around his eyes.  “Ayahuasca is a sacred drink.  Those who take it are advised to wait at least two weeks or until they fully understand their experience before they speak of it.  There are some things about my experience I am still trying to figure out.”

Then he turned to a loose page consisting of an odd pencil sketch.  The drawing was of a broad-chested bird with a rainbow of feathers, furry legs of a jaguar, the neck of a serpent, and the leathery face of a monkey.  The image was so entrancing it would be permanently imprinted in my mind.

“What is that?” I asked.

“That is the Cayramashi.”

“Is it real?”

He winked at me.  “If you think it is then it is?  The legend says it is a bird crafted by shamans.  And now it lives and guides the shamans.  Maybe it is out there.”  He pulled the book away.  “For another day,” he said.  “Your imagination is taking you too far away from me right now.”

My imagination took me…and never let go.

Distracted Writing at a Coffee Shop

I was working on a novel filled with shady characters when a guitar/piano duet entered the coffee shop followed by their adoring fan.

She comes to support the two guys who are playing background music at a coffee shop at a volume so low you can only hear it if you’re sitting within five feet of them.  The guitar player is lightly finger-strumming on a nylon guitar and bobs his head in syncopation with the beat as if he’s feelin’ it even as the customers are barely hearin’ it.  The piano player tickles the treble, white keys while ignoring the black ones.  His left hand is dead in his lap.  Bashful musicians.  She sits and eats a sandwich.  Taps her feet to the staggered rhythm.  Sways to the beat.  Smiles.  Silently snaps her fingers in approval when a song finishes.  She is the only one listening or paying attention.  But she doesn’t feel awkward about it.  She is completely invested.  The guitar player text messages someone between songs while the piano player plays arpeggios.  When there’s a lull, she texts as well.  The piano player falsettos some Richard Marx and she laughs a cozy laugh, the kind that causes the shoulders to scrunch inward and the eyes to squint.  Next song she sighs, looks down in reflection for just a moment as if to regather her enthusiasm, then resumes her swaying for a little bit.  After this song she snaps with only one finger.  She’s fading, staring off into nothing, but still engages the guys with supportive smiles.  They’re why she’s here.  But she is the brightest star in the coffee shop.

 

Fear

MISTER

(He is well-known so I won’t reveal his name)

-

I met him when I was young.

He lurked in an unmarked van near the school

And once moved into the vacant house next door.

He was a foreigner –

An intruder to our land.

As I aged

I realized

Every night

He entered my home through the screen

While I watched him with suspicious eyes.

I erected walls

Secured locks.

But like a stubborn itch

He appeared on my vacation

And sat next to me on the airplane

As I quivered in my seat.

When I returned

He tracked me through the wires

Threatening to steal my life

And I spent my nights

Awaiting the midnight tapping at the door.

Eventually

I would surrender to him.

He was my protector

keeping me safe at night…

Until the drunken dinner

When I carved him up

Soaked him in butter

and ate him

Brushing off the parsley and chives

Relishing every bite

Postponing the certainty

This would later make me sick.

And now I am dying

Of this terminal disease

Called life.

Why was he always here?

And who was so cruel

To introduce me to

To Mister …

Houdini Nation

An acquaintance of mine recently came back from a medical mission in the Dominican Republic.  What caught his eye and what he wished to impress upon me was the abundance of poverty and squalor.  “But how are the people?” I asked.

“Surprisingly, they seem pretty happy,” he said.  “But they wouldn’t be so happy if they knew of all the things they didn’t have.”  Funny that this comment was coming from a man who drinks himself into oblivion at least twice a week to escape his loveless marriage and angry clients.

I’m not going set out to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness.  That argument has been made and pounded into our brains through literature, television, movies, and our own anecdotal experiences.  What I am curious about is why, when we live in such an advantaged society, we feel such discontent and a need to escape.  This need and revolt against the self has less to do with class than it has to do with being American.

You could say escape is part of who we are.  Most of us descend from people who fled their homelands for a better life in America.  When confronted with problems, like Huck Finn, our first instinct is to get away.  In fact, much of our culture is about getting away: going away to college, moving out after graduation, taking that transfer for the better job.  But whereas it once was external forces that prompted us into action, now we are escaping from ourselves.

We find escape from the confines of our marriages through affairs, escape from the stress of our jobs or joblessness through drugs and alcohol, escape from mundane drudgery through our virtual lives, escape from obligation through resignation.  We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that we can tolerate anything because relief has always been so instantly accessible.  Too bad relief is only temporary.

What the enlightenment taught us was an ability to look inward for strength, but this reliance on looking within has made us culturally narcissistic.  Consider some of the clinical characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder:

-The individual has a grandiose sense of self-importance

-The individual is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success

-The individual believes he or she is special and unique

-The individual requires excessive admiration

-The individual has a sense of entitlement

-The individual is interpersonally exploitive

-The individual lacks empathy

-The individual believes that others are envious of him or her

-The individual shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Not only does this characterize our brand of patriotism where national interest is front-center, but also our own practice of directing our life’s purpose towards serving the self.  Is that how we define success?  By the fruit of our careers?  By sexual fulfillment?  By attaining enviable status within our communities?  It’s our own version of the Greek areté, or all-around excellence.  Unfortunately, we are poor judges of the things that make us happy.  We become paralyzed by the duality of the mind, and have a tough time reconciling our narcissistic tendencies with our Christian virtues of humility, empathy, and charity.  Steinbeck nailed it on the head through his character Doc in Cannery Row.

“It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Just as a nation divided against itself cannot stand, an individual divided against himself cannot stand either.  We teeter on the brink of insanity, balancing opposite extremes.  The political polarization in our country actually reflects quite accurately the “schism of the soul” we are experiencing as individuals.

Generally speaking, we are a nation governed by a conservative conscience that is just an annoying voice set against our liberal vices.  We are outraged at the split-second sight of a female nipple on network television, yet we are the world’s biggest consumer of porn.  We condemn affairs and premarital sex but have our own.  We detest drunk drivers yet we frequently drink and drive.  We are walking contradictions.  It’s no wonder we’d want to get away from ourselves.

It’s like we live each day with so much regret for who we are and the things we have failed to do or the things we have done.  We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that happiness is one wish, one dollar, or one lover away.  What if instead of looking forward to what we hope could be, we looked around and reflected on what we have?  During my travels of through South America, while I did see a lot of poverty, I also found a lot of happy people.  It was refreshing.  The one thing they had in common was a tie to each other.  Family.  Community.  In our Houdini nation of escape artists, we are becoming lonelier.  In the end, isn’t that what we fear most?  In the end, will we realize, as Christian told Jack in the final episode of Lost, that “the most…important part of your life, was the time that you spent with these people…You needed all of them, and they needed you.”

You and I

(a Valentine’s poem for the apple of my eye)

You are the center of my cyber universe

You make me free.

Now I can work in the car, at dinner, on a boat in the lake, at the cybercafé with my virtual friends, or in bed with my wife

(that I don’t have because I don’t have time for that life)

But now I am free to take my work on my vacation

To talk to friends and friends and thousands of friends

(How exactly do I know all of them?)

Together we fought.

Yes we fought for this freedom in the digital revolution

I sport wounds of carpal tunnel and hazy vision

And atrophied muscles and burns from this fluorescent dimension.

And now

I stand at attention for your beckon.

You save me so much time

Time I can use to spend with you!

I don’t care that you’re dead

Almost all of the time

Time means nothing

When we can stop, pause, rewind.

I don’t care

that you ring, or you beep, or you chime.

Let freedom ring.

Ring, freedom

You were my dream

And now my reality

In a virtual world

Where we can dream of escapes

We can make together.

You and I.

A Contemplation on Daniel Lee’s Nightlife

Click the picture to visit Daniel Lee’s website

NIGHTLIFE

She sits on a table at the far end of the bar,

legs crossed,

her feline eyes—passively sympathetic—pouring into mine,

while the fuse between her fingertips expires.

Only she finds me,

me, the animal trapped on the other side of the divide,

awaiting slaughter

While they avoid my eyes.

They with their cocktails and coffees

            the bear with a tigress in his lap

(he, protecting? or she, shielding?)

the monkey in the middle

impassioned in a terror that never presses too close

the boorish man,

watching my passing as if it were a 30-second ad

the long-faced lady in the red gown

Banished from the ball for pulling her own carriage

the sexy snake seducing her mirror,

Yes, the whore,

the horrified, the perverted

all watching something I cannot see

except she

in the green

at the end,

helpless,

yet watching me

in the end.